Bored of Education: How to Engage the Future Workforce


|  By Dr Charles R. Cadle  |

Rapid advances in science and technology, coupled with global competition, are driving new opportunities within the emerging global science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) economy. Cisco is projecting that the Internet of Things (IoT) will account for nearly half of connected devices by 2020. The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that computer and mathematical occupations will be the fastest growth segment, and the Project Management Institute estimates 15.7 million new project management roles will be ‘created’ by 2020. Yet, teachers are losing student engagement at a time when it should be at unprecedented levels. There exists a huge strategic hole in the educational ecosystem, and if the future workforce is going to be inspired and engaged, educators need to re-imagine their methods of teaching.

The gap between what students are being taught and the skills needed for success continues to widen. In a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the findings highlighted that 93 percent of the employers (non-profit and for-profit) surveyed felt that thinking, complex problem solving and communication skills were more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major. Since classroom instruction generally focuses on content transference rather than using metacognitive and experiential strategies, to enable students to gain competence and efficacy with innovation, curriculum and instruction methods need to include metacognitive and experiential components. This article suggests that a solution to this problem would be to engage students with projects that connect them to opportunities emerging in STEM. This should not only be an important goal of the educational ecosystem, but also a strategy to inspire and equip students with the top 10 skills highlighted by the World Economic Forum.

Changing The Educational Ecosystem

For STEM education to be effective, students should be provided contextual linkage to bridge abstract concepts to authentic scenarios and be taught to question the further value of existing processes and products. The IoT, voice-user interfaces, machine learning, artificial intelligence, 5G wireless and other emerging technologies are influencing the future of work. Student skills such as adopting thinking tools for sagacity, learning to use project management principles to reduce risk and as a process to manage open-ended projects, learning how to develop prototypes to prove concepts, and learning how to make a successful pitch on the value of the project should be part of the educational offering. The gap in knowledge of the myriad of emerging STEM career options is also preventing students from exploring opportunities that may be more in line with their interests and passion. In a recent study, researchers learned that student interest was the highest rated influence on pursuing a field of study; however, their choice depended on the student having knowledge of that area. Therefore, more educators should be engaging students with awareness of emerging career opportunities as a teaching strategy.

Unfortunately, at a time when STEM engagement should be at the forefront, high-stakes testing and lecture formats are at centre stage, and this is not only causing a loss of student interest and imagination, but it is also teaching students that only one right answer exists for questions. If the goal as educators is to develop a creatively skilled child, then differentiated instruction that fosters imagination, thinking skills, grit, courage and curiosity should be added to the curriculum. The world is becoming increasingly complex and, therefore, the need to teach students how to think and how to use their creative juices to become the next ‘problem finders’ must be a priority for society. Developing a student’s creative imagination should be a significant component of 21st century learning.

Creative imagination is a thought process which involves divergent and convergent thinking relating to a problem, need, motive or desire, and a person’s creative imagination can be enhanced by context, thinking tools and experience. A creative imagination is reflective and attentive, and manifested by taking action toward the realisation of a creative idea. Lev Vygotsky referred to imagination as an “extremely complex process”. Neuroscience research has found that the strength of neural impulses actively transforms thinking and focus. These stronger impulses can lead students to persevere and to take educated risks. An example of this type of behaviour is that demonstrated by Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver.

Fry, an engineer with 3M, participated in his church’s choir where he would routinely place pieces of paper in his hymnal to provide easy access to selected hymns. As can be imagined, he was frustrated when these placeholders would routinely fall out of his hymn book. Fry happened to attend a seminar led by Silver, another colleague with 3M. Silver had been working with various types of adhesives and had developed a version that could be used to temporarily bond substances together but had not found a market strategy for his invention. Fry’s imagination put his hymnal placeholders and this new adhesive together to develop Post-It® notes and the rest is history.

By providing students with informal learning experiences that invoke the use of creativity, courage, collaboration, communication and curiosity, educators can engage and inspire them in new ways. If students practise problem finding, possibility thinking and proper habits of mind, they will become more confident and efficacious. Vygotsky surmised that creation is “always” based on lack of adaptation, which gives rise to needs, motives and desires. The presence of needs and desires (John Dewey referred to this as disruption) thus triggers the working of the creative imagination. The outcome of creative imagination is a thought process which guides actions and activities toward resolution, and integrates the environment, previous experience and possibility thinking together in a connectionist or information processing strategy. Dewey also suggested that a person’s enhanced cognitive ability was gained through an inquiry process beginning with disruption and uncertainty and continuing with problem thinking, development of a working hypothesis, reasoning, testing the hypothesis in action and concept formation, and ending with problem resolution and action. Without this type of training, students will not be challenged to remain creative and will ultimately lose their ability to think divergently. Working on project teams builds emotional intelligence and enables students to have a positive self-concept. Ed Catmull from Pixar offered an interesting comment on creativity:

“Here’s what we all know, deep down, even though we might wish it weren’t true: Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear. I am not one of those people. To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs.”

The future workforce will need employees who are constantly looking for the better way, who become innovative problem solvers, and who have the experience of working on creative projects.

The Solutions:

1. Experiential and Inquiry-guided Instruction

Traditional educational methods are appropriate when developing literacy in a new field of study; however, to provide contextual linkage between abstract concepts and real applications, experiential and inquiry-guided instruction can provide a proven prescription for helping students gain understanding and competence. The current educational ecosystem suffers from entrenchment in archaic structures and learning theories. This expanded view of learning combines the work of experiential learning theorists – Dewey, Lewin, Piaget and Greene – to emphasise the creative process from imagination to innovation. For cognition and behaviour to evolve, students must interact with and test theories against conventional thought. Questioning current processes and products for continued relevance could lead to discovery of new innovative products, processes and services. The process of experiential learning includes problem finding, inquiry and research, creativity, decision making, complex problem solving and competence in the creative process. Project-based learning can enhance mental agility and create expert intuition by enabling students to practise and perfect the creative process. By providing students with fun and engaging open-ended projects that enable them to gain competency in 21st century skills, mastery of STEM-related content and a connection to real-world opportunities, educators could inspire the next generation of leaders and innovators.

Student-led projects benefit students by allowing them to discover their interests and passion for a specific field of study. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning performs research on in-school project-based learning initiatives and has found that these initiatives improve student engagement and learning. One non-profit organisation that uses experiential and inquiry-guided learning strategies is Destination Imagination, Inc. This organisation provides STEM and arts-related projects as informal learning experiences to teach curiosity, courage, creativity and the creative process from imagination to innovation. Embedded in this organisation’s project-based learning program are project management principles, 21st century skills development and activities that develop mental agility and expert intuition.

2. Project Management Instruction

Learning how to manage a project is important to STEM education and student engagement. How to initiate, plan, execute, monitor/control and close projects is a project-management skill that is valued by industry. Currently, there are more than 52 million project managers, and this industry occupation is set for significant growth as smart cities address urban population growth, as technology disrupts industry processes, as the IoT changes consumer behaviour, as global warming and environmental factors grow in importance, and as the need for lowering costs and improving efficiency become increasing important.

3. Virtual Reality Instruction

Benjamin Franklin posited, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Never has this quote been so true when applied to improving instruction. Multiple studies have confirmed the learning improvements of virtual reality instruction. The aerospace industry, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), public safety and the U.S. Army now use virtual reality in training with extremely positive results; however, the educational ecosystem has been slow to adopt virtual reality as an instructional tool. This could be due to the high cost, low availability, novelty of the technology and the low number of relevant courses. For example, a recent study over a two-year period investigated the impact of stereoscopic virtual reality technology on student academic achievement, retention of content knowledge and student engagement. The findings demonstrated significant improvement in all areas.

Students could have virtual experiences and learn in virtual reality environments, which could inspire and engage them in STEM-related opportunities for careers. Could experiential learning move to the virtual world to train students in STEM opportunities? This technology has a bright future in education and educators should consider the benefits to enhance the educational experience for students, and the potential to use virtual reality to engage students in STEM subject matter.


This article was written to heighten the sense of urgency related to inspiring and preparing the future workforce for STEM careers. Industry and government will seek to hire new employees that have the relevant STEM knowledge and the requisite 21st century skills required to be productive in their roles. By engaging students with STEM projects, those that have been bored in school will learn skills that will prepare them to be effective and relevant in the future workforce. Let’s do this!

A technology visionary, global entrepreneur, educator, author and banker, Dr Charles Cadle is probably best known for his passionate leadership and advocacy for student success in the disruptive digital economy. He has a doctorate in education, a masters in leadership and an undergraduate degree in accounting and finance. He is licensed as a school superintendent and business teacher, and he holds certifications as a certified public accountant and as a project management professional. Charles serves on the executive board for Share Fair Nation, the advisory council for the Project Learning Network and the Board of Trustees for Destination Imagination and for the Student Research Foundation. He is an active member in the Project Management Institute, the APA, the American Chemical Society and the American Institute of CPAs.

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.

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